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Engagement is a sticky issue these days. The term used to mean something: capturing and holding attention, sparking an interaction, getting the message across — all important steps along the journey toward our marketing goals. But, somewhere along the way, engagement seems to have become the goal itself.

It’s an elusive concept, with no standard definition and little consensus on the role it’s meant to play in our content marketing strategies – let alone how to measure its impact on marketing performance.

Given that engagement has become so nebulous, there’s much to debate when it comes to how marketers should approach engagement in their content efforts – or even if the word is too vague to be useful. In this episode of Talking Points, I cynically pull engagement apart in the hopes my passionate panel of experts can piece it back together.

Meet our panel

Erika Heald

Erika Heald is a San Francisco-based marketing consultant and freelance writer. She focuses on helping enterprise technology and specialty food startups define their content marketing strategy to drive lead generation and customer loyalty. Erika led and grew high-performance content marketing teams at Highwire PR, Anaplan, and Achievers. You can find her on her blog or on Twitter @SFerika.
Maureen JannMaureen Jann is the founder and managing director of SuperDeluxe Marketing, a marketing, content, and thought leadership strategy agency on the outskirts of Seattle. Before tackling the challenge of marketing to marketers, she spent 18 years helping businesses build high-performing marketing departments. A frequent guest on podcasts and panels, Maureen loves exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her daughter, husband, and pug dog. Follow Maureen on Twitter @SuperDeluxeMo.
Dennis ShiaoDennis Shiao is an independent marketing consultant who works with brands on content marketing, product messaging, and social media marketing. Dennis is also founder and organizer of the Bay Area Content Marketing Meetup, which hosts monthly presentations within a group of 500 local marketers. Follow Dennis on Twitter @dshiao.


Talking Points Highlights

Jonathan: How do you each define engagement? It’s such a broad term and, it feels to me, people define it to fit whatever they’re trying to prove to someone else.

Erika: Engagement isn’t about hitting like or every other action on Facebook. It is when somebody has that moment with your content; where it makes them feel something, do something – you know, take a next step, or share it with someone else. Hitting the little smiley face or the thumbs up, that doesn’t mean they even read it. That doesn’t mean they even looked at it. It just means they’re like, “Oh, hey, Erika posted something. I like Erika. She’s my friend. I’m going to give her a little thumbs up.” That’s nice, but it’s not meaningful.

Dennis: I have a problem with the term “engagement.” When social media first came around, we all kind of had the same feelings about what engagement is, and it was usually a lot of those vanity metrics. But I think it’s become so nebulous that it’s almost become meaningless. Maybe we should just stop talking about engagement itself because one person’s definition is different than another’s.

Engagement has become so nebulous, it’s almost meaningless, says @dshiao. #ContentMarketing #CMWorld Share on X

Maureen: I honestly believe that engagement, at its core, is like the desperate bid of marketers to be like, “my content matters.” You find a way to make those [vanity] metrics matter because it feels good. But the reality is, unless it becomes genuinely measurable in a real meaningful way, on a measurable attribution path, it just feels sad.

If “engagement” has become meaningless, how did it happen? Is it a product of marketers telling clients, “Here is how we are going to justify our content,” or is it that they are just delivering on their clients’ stated requests to “drive engagements”?

Maureen: In addition to that, though, is it just out of lack of better goals? I mean is that because [marketers] don’t have really solid hard metrics that they can grab onto, and engagement can be measured by standard analytics [available on] almost all the social media platforms? I feel it’s a question we need to be asking ourselves.

@SuperDeluxeMo asks: Are marketers focused on content engagement for lack of better goals and solid metrics they can grab onto? #ContentMarketing #CMWorld Share on X

Erika: I’ve had clients where the CEO would be so excited about posting a very expensive video on LinkedIn: “Oh, I got 900 impressions on that, and from such big important companies.” And I’d very politely ask, “How many comments; how many click-throughs did we get from that?” Then I would gently explain that impressions just mean it showed up in their feed. It doesn’t mean they watched it. “How many people watched it? Oh, four people? OK, that’s not good. That wasn’t good engagement.”

Dennis: Part of the challenge is just the label itself. Engagement is a loosely worded term, whereas impressions, clicks, shares, etc., those are easily measurable. And the problem is that there’s no industry-standard definition of how to take all those individual metrics and calculate engagement. So, everyone has their own definition.

Then to compound the confusion, each platform, and even each analytical tool, will measure in a different way. You can take the data from one place, and it’s not comparable to another. But are marketers making the mistake of trying to compare say, Facebook video views with YouTube views?

Engagement metrics commonly get used as a way of indicating brand awareness. Is that problematic?

Maureen: That makes me angry.

Erika: My first question is always: “What monitoring platform are we using to measure before and after to see if our brand awareness in our category or in our target areas has actually increased?”

“Oh, we’re not paying for one at all? So, we’re not actually doing that, then.”

Maureen: They’re using impressions. And that’s horrible because that doesn’t mean you can remember anything. I mean Twitter actually does … I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these; but when they’ve served up an ad in your feed, every so often they’ll come back and they will actually ask you, “Do you remember seeing this ad and, if so, how do you feel about the company?” So, they are trying to add in some of that kind of brand awareness data to give back to advertisers.

Erika: They’re starting to hint about this around on the edges on Facebook, as well, with that kind of feedback. So, I’d be curious to see how that grows.

Is there a positive way to look at engagement? What’s the good side of this as a metric?

Dennis: There are three things that I think of for engagement, which should come in sequence: attention, which is more meaningful to me than clicking the favorite button. Attention means you’ve actually ingested the thought or you’re considering it, which leads to trust – trust in the brand, in the person, then leads to action. In a B2B scenario, it’s getting you from awareness through to consideration. Then, potentially, purchase is engagement, along that cycle.

Jonathan: I know there have been attempts to try and put metrics to those, such as being able to track scrolling within the article to see whether [the visitor] just clicked through and then back, or did [they] actually go down three quarters of the page? ‘Cause then they’ll actually count as a read.

Maureen: There are a lot of good tools that are starting to emerge that are giving you that kind of insight, which I think is something that we’re desperately missing.

If you could offer one piece of advice on what marketers should be doing when it comes to engagement, what would it be?

Erika: I’d say if you’re only going to do one thing, use Urchin Tracking Modules (UTMs). That way, you’re actually tagging your channels, the type of content, and any kind of a campaign or keyword because that alone will give you data to start from.

If marketers do just one thing to measure engagement effectively, it should be to use UTMs, says @SFerika. #ContentMarketing #CMWorld Share on X

Maureen: I don’t want to just agree for the sake of agreeing, but the reality is that is the one thing you (should) do. Then, you can also take a harder look at who’s sharing your content, because that’s real and meaningful. Who’s engaging – actually having a conversation with you about your content – and who is clicking through? I think that those are real engagement metrics.

Dennis: I’m going to use a short sports analogy to make a point. I apologize to anyone who’s not a sports fan, but I think marketers are like athletes in that their vanity metrics are like the athletes who track their points, scores, home runs, RBIs, etc. Those are all individual stats, and they love to parade them, and there is some value to the team in their individual stats. But we need to think beyond the individual stats (vanity metrics) to wins. So, I think marketers need to think about what is the win for the team.

Please note: Unless stated, any tools mentioned in CCO are suggested by panelists, not the CMI editorial team.